Leading Article: No more Mr Nice Guy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THIS has been a fearful weekend for the Conservative Party. The gulf between those who want to rebuild links with Europe as rapidly as possible and those who privately rejoice in the earthquakes of recent weeks has been allowed to widen. A motley crew, ministers as well as backbenchers, who are fundamentally (or opportunistically) opposed to Europe for a variety of conflicting and unconvincing reasons have been encouraged in their flight from responsibility and reality.

In the absence of firm leadership from the top, surveys suggest that a growing number of Conservative MPs are prepared, mainly anonymously, to express doubts about a return to the ERM. Many say they would like to see the Maastricht treaty abandoned or renegotiated. Some 70 have signed an early day motion calling for 'a fresh start' on economic and European policies. The form of words used can, technically, be presented as supportive of the Government's position. But the subtext is anti-European and is intended to be subversive of the posture towards Europe apparently adopted by John Major. For all that it is camouflaged as support for the Government, it is in fact an act of open defiance and should be treated accordingly. It is necessary to employ stern measures to nip such behaviour in the bud before it undermines morale and encourages more people to engage in more rocking of the boat.

As for Michael Howard, the Secretary of State for the Environment, he can (just about) claim not to have breached the collective responsibility that goes with membership of the Cabinet. This weekend he has prattled continually of the 'additional opportunity' presented by our withdrawal from the ERM and said that 'we can now set our economic policy exclusively by reference to British interests'. But the Prime Minister has consistently taken the view that membership of the ERM was in this country's interest and that those who thought otherwise were not serious in their anti-inflationary intent.

In contrast, Mr Howard's phraseology suggests not that there were undetected faults in the ERM, but that it had been wrong in principle to enter the mechanism. If this contention is correct, the Cabinet should be celebrating a merciful release, not gearing up for a return to a revamped ERM. Mr Howard and the handful of ministers who think as he does might ponder the example set yesterday by the Labour rebel, Bryan Gould, who is to pursue his anti-European campaign from the back benches.

Mr Howard's words should be compared with the language employed by Tristan Garel-Jones, the Foreign Office Minister responsible for Europe, during a conference at Conservative Central Office. Maastricht had, the latter said, been 'a personal triumph for the Prime Minister and for the United Kingdom'. According to Mr Garel-Jones, the anti-Europeans in the Conservative Party were 'bizarre, reckless and absurd'. The Europhobes (Eurosceptics is a misleading euphemism) have a variety of fantasy agendas, linked only by their unreality.

Mr Garel-Jones is a close ally of the Prime Minister, and his remarks are being taken to reflect the views of his leader. This may well be true, but the former's tough talk is a poor substitute for the smack of firm government from the latter. Mr Major is by nature a conciliator and a consensus builder. But he has to recognise that he has no room for compromise and no possibility of pleasing everybody. If the words are the Prime Minister's, the voice should be that of the Prime Minister. It is more than time Mr Major told his party some home truths. No more Mr Nice Guy.